The race to 5G is on, and Apple isn’t in as much of a rush. While competitors like Samsung, Huawei, Lenovo, Sony, LG, and Oppo have confirmed or alluded to the release of 5G smartphones in 2019, Apple doesn’t plan on entering the 5G world until 2020, a source told Fast Company. Apple plans to use Intel’s 8161 5G modem chip in its 2020 phones. Intel hopes to fabricate the 8161 using its 10-nanometer process, which increases transistor density for more speed and efficiency. If everything goes as planned, Intel will be the sole provider of iPhone modems. Intel has been working on a precursor to the 8161 called the 8060, which will be used for prototyping and testing the 5G iPhone. Apple has been unhappy with Intel lately. The most likely reason relates to the challenge of solving heat dissipation issues caused by the 8060 modem chip.
5G is the next big chapter for device manufacturers, telecom equipment vendors and telecom service providers. With 5G roll out, consumers will be able to experience super fast data speeds on their palm and will be able to experience 4K streaming and seamless access to smart home devices. The major promise with 5G is lower latency and fast data speeds.
Many wireless carriers, including Verizon and AT&T in the U.S., will initially rely on millimeter-wave spectrum (between 28 gigahertz and 39 Ghz) to connect the first 5G phones. But millimeter-wave signal requires some heavy lifting from the modem chips and RF chains, our source explains. This causes the release of higher-than-normal levels of thermal energy inside the phone–so much so that the heat can be felt on the outside of the phone. The problem also affects battery life. Heat generated by a device component is always converted from electricity stored in the battery.
Apple’s current issues with Intel are not serious enough to cause Apple to reopen conversations with Qualcomm about supplying 5G modems. Qualcomm’s X50 modem has also created heat dissipation problems for other smartphone OEMs developing smartphones that support millimeter wave 5G.
Apple has held conversations with another chip maker, MediaTek about potentially supplying 5G modem chips, but our source believes that is a distant “Plan B.” MediaTek is said to be working on a 5G modem, but the company typically develops modem platforms for lower-priced devices, not for flagship smartphones. Apple and Intel have ample time to correct problems in the Intel modem platform. By 2015, Apple had begun working with Intel to supply modems for the iPhone, and this year’s line of iPhones was the first to use Intel modems exclusively.
No, this doesn’t mean there will be a 5G iPhone in 2019
There are a number of breathless reports circulating around about how this acceleration of the rollout means that we might see a 5G capable iPhone in 2019. That’s highly unlikely. This particular acceleration of 5G availability will impact some other phones, but probably not Apple’s. If manufacturers (like Apple) are only going to get the modem in the second half 2019 (after Intel’s accelerated rollout), it’s definitely not going to ship in an iPhone in September of that same year!
Integration and testing of new modem hardware takes months, and when it comes to brand new-generation cellular technology (especially tech that’s as tricky as 5G), that timetable just blows up. Throughout 2019, 5G is primarily going to appear in higher-power devices like fixed residential broadband or maybe some big, fat Android phones with huge batteries. The kind of low power use, tight integration, and reliability that’s necessary for the iPhone (and most top-tier Android phones) will simply not be ready in 2019. At least, not with Intel’s XMM 8160 modem.
Moving up availability by half a year sounds exciting, but since iPhones are released in the September/October timeframe, it doesn’t really have much of an impact on them. Intel’s old timetable reported commercial availability in the first half of 2020, with products on shelves in the second half of 2020. That’s just in time for the 2020 iPhone rollout, if we make the reasonable assumption that Apple is doing a lot of work ahead of time with Intel and other partners on testing 5G technology.
Moving up six months doesn’t change anything, unless Apple suddenly shifts its entire hardware rollout schedule and pushes out a new iPhone in the spring of 2020. Intel would have to accelerate the XMM 7560 launch by a full year in order to get it inside the 2019 iPhone.
So take a breath, iPhone fans. I know the prospect of a 5G iPhone is enticing, but it’s almost certainly still not coming until autumn 2020. Apple is almost never the first to adopt bleeding-edge cellular technology, and as we get set to flip the calendars over to 2019, mobile 5G is still very much in the testing phase.
The 5G onslaught begins
The wireless industry’s first wave of 5G handsets will debut at the Mobile World Congress show next February. Android phones from such manufacturers as Oppo, Huawei, and Xiaomi will contain 5G modem chips made by Qualcomm. AT&T has been pressuring handset suppliers to work out technical issues in the first 5G modem chips so that it can bring 5G phones to market in the U.S. in 2019, our source said. Qualcomm has said it has managed the heat dissipation issues in its modems.
Apple’s decision to wait until 2020 to release a 5G iPhone is a sensible one, and not surprising. The 5G standard was finalized only in 2018, and the number of 5G base stations available in major markets will remain limited next year. Where 5G does work, it will be fast. Some users will get multiple-gigabits-per-second download speeds. But in 2019, the actual must-have use cases, at least for smartphone users, will likely still not be well-defined. 2019 will be the year of the 5G marketing extravaganza–the year when the wireless carriers try to make the technology look desirable, even necessary. This is what happens every time a new wireless standard begins making its way into the market. As one T-Mobile executive put it, 5G’s killer app in 2019 may be lighting up the “5G” icon on the screens of new phones.